Stamping out slavery


13 Aug 2021

Exploitation of people happens when we see others as ‘strangers’.

The International Day in Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition on 23 August commemorates in the first place the successful slave revolt against French colonialists in what became Haiti. This was part of a more general reaction against slavery in Europe, often inspired by the growing belief in universal human rights. That belief undermined the basis of slavery.

People enslaved others because they were different from themselves, and so inferior and without rights. Only strangers were made slaves. In most ancient societies in Europe, the Middle East and Africa people who were captured in war were enslaved and often sold on for profit. They were property whose labour could be exploited, had no rights to land or to marry, and who in practice could be mistreated and even killed with impunity. They were often regarded as inferior, unreliable or treacherous. These xenophobic attitudes of their masters contributed to the mistreatment of slaves.

In the societies which are seen as formative of Western Civilisation slavery was an essential part. In Greece the monuments, laws, philosophical thought, plays and poetry that formed the basis of education throughout the Roman Empire rested on the manual labour of slaves who were captured in wars with other Greek speaking states. In Rome in the early Christian era slaves formed over half the population, allowing the Empire to spread, its citizens to grow in wealth, and its leisured class to cultivate the arts. Slavery diminished only as the Empire grew to such an extent that making and keeping slaves became more costly. Slaves were the unseen other on whom high culture depended.

The early Christians, too, took slavery for granted. We hear little of Christian slaves, though the entire households that became Christian would certainly have included slaves. Christians were instructed to treat their slaves well, and slaves to obey their masters. Christianity at its best diminished the gulf between slaves and those who owned them, but did not abolish the inhumanity of it.

After slavery was gradually replaced by other forms of service, it returned when Europeans made their way to Africa and to the Americas. It became profitable as African traders captured slaves and sent them to markets that despatched them to the New World to work in agriculture and mines in exchange for goods from Europe. Catholic Bishops generally appealed for their humane treatment, and insisted that they were fully human. But few questioned the institution of slavery.

The movement against slavery, led by Quakers and influenced by Enlightened insistence on human rights, gained force in the late 18th century against the strong opposition of people who profited from it. The beginning of the end for slavery came when the British Parliament abolished it in British colonies, so affecting the trade in African slaves. Later on, in the northern states of America slavery was abolished, and after the Civil War, in the southern states as well.

The abolition of slavery, however, was only the beginning of the real work of reconciliation. Simply freeing slaves did not affect the attitudes that had condemned them to slavery or the contempt that a slave owning society continued to hold for them. Nor did it put on the table even the minimal bread that they received as slaves. They and their descendants were free to starve, and were still marginalised by difference of wealth, power and by laws that discriminated against them.

In this respect, the abolition of slavery was only the beginning of a long path. In Australia we see some of the offshoots of this mindset that affect vulnerable young people. These include the sexual exploitation of the young, the wage slavery and lack of accountability in many industries and the lack of protection for temporary immigrants and refugees. In all these cases human beings are seen as strangers and so exploited.

Image: Slaves monument in Caribbean – Getty

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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